Year in review: The biggest spy-related stories of 2017, part III

Year in ReviewSince 2008, when we launched intelNews, it has been our end-of-year tradition to take a look back and highlight what we see as the most important intelligence-related stories of the past 12 months. In anticipation of what 2018 may bring in this highly volatile field, we give you our selection of the top spy stories of 2017. They are listed below in reverse order of significance. This is the last part in a three-part series. Part one is available here. Part two is available here.

Mohammed bin Salman04. Unprecedented security changes are taking place in Saudi Arabia. Analysts agree that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is undergoing its most important political changes in generations. On November 4, 2017, nearly 50 senior Saudi officials, including at least 11 princes, some of them among the world’s wealthiest people, were suddenly fired or arrested. A royal decree issued on that same evening said that the arrests were carried out by a new “anti-corruption committee” led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the king’s 32-year-old son, who is first in line to the throne. The king and his son appear to be in the process of removing their last remaining critics from the ranks of the Kingdom’s security services, which they now control almost completely. Earlier in the year, the BBC alleged that Saudi security services were secretly abducting Saudi dissidents from abroad and jailing them in Saudi Arabia. Also in November, Saudi Arabia was seen to be behind a failed attempt by Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri —a dual Lebanese-Saudi citizen— to resign while on a trip to Saudi Arabia. There were allegations that Hariri was under arrest by the Saudis, who objected to the presence of Hezbollah members in his cabinet. But Hariri later returned to Lebanon and rescinded his resignation.

03. Extraordinary transformation of the intelligence landscape in South Korea. Developments in North Korea have been at the forefront of security reporting in recent months. But reports from the Korean Peninsula have largely ignored the dramatic changes Moon Jae-intaking place in the intelligence infrastructure of South Korea, which are arguably as important as developments north of the 38th parallel. In June, the new center-left government of President Moon Jae-in banned the powerful National Intelligence Service (NIS) from engaging in domestic intelligence gathering. The move came after a lengthy investigation concluded that the NIS interfered in the 2012 presidential elections and tried to alter the outcome in favor of the conservative candidate, Park Geun-hye, using 30 dedicated teams of officers for that purpose. In November, three former NIS directors were charged with secretly diverting funds from the agency’s clandestine budget to aid Park, who has since been impeached and is now facing a lengthy prison sentence.

02. Turkey’s fallout with the West is affecting spy relations. Turkey has been a NATO member since 1952. However, rising tensions in the country’s domestic political scene are negatively affecting Ankara’s relations with its Western allies, particularly with Germany and the United States. Last month, Turkey issued an arrest warrant for Graham Fuller, an 80-year-old former analyst in the CIA, who Ankara says helped orchestrate the failed July 2016 military coup against the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Washington flatly denies these allegations. In May, the Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu accused “the secret services of [Western] countries” of “using journalists and also bloggers [as spies] in Turkey”. Earlier in the year, a German report claimed that the Turkish state had asked its diplomats stationed all over Europe to spy on Turkish expatriate communities there, in order t to identify those opposed to the government of President Erdoğan. In some cases, Turkish spies have asked their Western European counterparts to help them monitor the activities Turkish expatriates, but such requests have been turned down. Nevertheless, there is increasing unease in Western Europe as Turkey intensifies its unilateral intelligence activities aimed at monitoring political dissent among Turkish communities abroad.

01. With America divided, Russian spies make dramatic post-Cold War comeback. The collapse of the Soviet Union was a traumatic experience for the once all-powerful Russian spy agencies. But, if CIA and FBI assessments are correct, the bitterly divisive state of American politics gave Russian spooks a chance for a dramatic comeback. Using a mixture of human and online intelligence operations, Russian spies helped drive a wedge between the White House and the US Intelligence Community. American intelligence agencies are tasked with providing information to Putin and Trumpassist policy-makers, including the president. So when the CIA and the FBI conclude that the Russian government launched an extensive and sophisticated campaign to undermine the 2016 US presidential election, one expects the president to take that advisement under serious consideration. However, the US leader has openly dismissed the conclusions of his own Intelligence Community and has publicly stated that he believes President Vladimir Putin’s assurances that his country did not meddle in the US election.

What we have here, therefore, is a US president who sees the Kremlin as more trustworthy than his own Intelligence Community. This is a remarkable, unprecedented state of affairs in Washington, so much so that some CIA officials have reportedly questioned whether it is safe for them to share information about Russia to President Trump. Throughout that time, the FBI has been conducting an extensive counterintelligence investigation into alleged ties between the president’s campaign team and the Kremlin. As intelNews has noted before, the FBI probe adds yet another layer of complexity in an already intricate affair, from which the country’s institutions will find it difficult to recover for years to come, regardless of the outcome of the investigation. The state of Russian politics may be uncertain, and the country’s economy in bad shape. But Russian spooks can look back to 2017 as the year in which they made an unexpected comeback, scoring a dramatic victory against their decades-old rival.

This is the last part in a three-part series. Part one is available here. Part two is available here.

Authors: Joseph Fitsanakis  and Ian Allen | Date: 03 January 2018 | Permalink

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Year in review: The biggest spy-related stories of 2017, part II

End of Year ReviewSince 2008, when we launched intelNews, it has been our end-of-year tradition to take a look back and highlight what we see as the most important intelligence-related stories of the past 12 months. In anticipation of what 2018 may bring in this highly volatile field, we give you our selection of the top spy stories of 2017. They are listed below in reverse order of significance. This is part two in a three-part series. Part one is available here. Part three will be posted tomorrow.

07. 2017 was marked by high-profile assassinations and suspicious deaths. There was no shortage of assassinations, assassination attempts, and suspicious deaths in 2017. In January, Brazilian authorities launched an investigation into a suspicious plane crash that killed Supreme Court judge Teori Zavascki, who died while leading the largest corruption probe in the nation’s history, involving government officials and two giant companies. In February, Vladimir Kara-Murza, a leading member of Open Russia, a think tank founded by Russian oligarchs opposed to Russian president Vladimir Putin, nearly died Kim Jong-namas a result of “acute poisoning from an undefined substance”, according to his doctors. Also in February, Kim Jong-nam, half-brother of North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un, was killed in an audacious attack in Malaysia by two female assassins, who used a poisonous substance to murder him. Some alleged that Kim, who was a critic of his brother’s policies in the DPRK, had made contact with US intelligence prior to his assassination. In March, the Israeli military alleged that Amine Badreddine, 55, an explosives expert and senior military commander in the military wing of Hezbollah, was murdered by his own people while fighting in Syria. Allegedly the Iranians wanted him killed because he disputed the authority of Major General Qasem Soleimani, commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, who is often credited with having saved the Syrian government from demise during the Syrian Civil War. In October, Malta’s best known investigative journalist, Daphne Caruana Galizia, whose reporting about offshore tax evasion revealed in the Panama papers prompted a major political crisis in Malta, was killed when the rented Peugeot 108 car she was driving exploded near her home in central Malta. Eyewitnesses said that the explosion was so powerful that it tore apart the vehicle and was heard from several miles away. Finally, in November, Zhang Yang, one of the highest-profile generals in the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, committed suicide according to Chinese state media. Zhang Yang had seen a meteoric rise to power, but unceremoniously fell from grace as a result of President Xi Jinping’s nationwide campaign against corruption.

06. CIA ends its support for opposition rebels in Syria. In February, the White House instructed the CIA to halt military support to armed groups that are associated with the Free Syrian Army (FSA), a group opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The move ended a policy that begun under US President Donald Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama. Some analysts warned that the decision by the White House to terminate US Milo Dukanovicsupport for the rebels could backfire by causing the suddenly unemployed fighters to join jihadist organizations. In August, there were reports that US troops exchanged fire with former FSA rebels in Manbij, a Syrian city located a few miles from the Turkish border.

05. Britain accused Russia of trying to kill Montenegro prime minister. In late 2016, authorities in the former Yugoslav Republic of Montenegro alleged that “nationalists from Russia and Serbia” were behind a failed plot to kill the country’s prime minister,  Milo Dukanović, and spark a pro-Russian coup in the country. Remarkably, in March of 2017, British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said in an interview that Russian spies may have indeed orchestrated the failed attempt to kill Dukanović, as part of a broader plan to prevent the former Yugoslav republic from entering NATO. It is not every day that a senior cabinet official of a NATO member-state accuses the Kremlin of carrying out an assassination attempt against a European head of state.

This is part two in a three-part series. Part one is available here. Part three is available here.

Authors: Joseph Fitsanakis  and Ian Allen | Date: 02 January 2018 | Permalink

Year in review: The biggest spy-related stories of 2017, part I

End of Year ReviewSince 2008, when we launched intelNews, it has been our end-of-year tradition to take a look back and highlight what we see as the most important intelligence-related stories of the past 12 months. In anticipation of what 2018 may bring in this highly volatile field, we give you our selection of the top spy stories of 2017. They are listed below in reverse order of significance. This is part one in a three-part series; parts two and three will be posted on Tuesday and Wednesday of this week.

khalifa haftar10. Saudis, Israelis, are illegally funding a CIA-backed warlord in Libya. The strongest faction in the ongoing Libyan Civil War is the eastern-based Tobruk-led Government, which is affiliated with the Libyan National Army (LNA). The commander of the LNA is Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, an old adversary of Colonel Gaddafi, who lived in the United States under CIA protection for several decades before returning to Libya in 2011 to launch his military campaign. American legal experts, including a former special counsel to the United States Department of Defense and a Harvard University law professor, accuse Haftar of ordering his troops to commit war crimes. But there is much evidence to suggest that Israeli, Saudi and Emirati intelligence agencies are illegally breaking a United Nations-imposed arms embargo on Libya and arming Haftar with advanced weaponry.

09. Why are American, Canadian diplomats in Havana going deaf? In 2015, relations between Cuba and the United States experienced an unprecedented rekindling, which culminated with the reopening of the US embassy in Havana after more than half a century. But in the past year, US authorities became enraged with the Cuban government after American diplomats reportedly suffered hearing loss and brain trauma as a result of a mysterious so-called “covert sonic weapon” that was directed against the American embassy. The US State Department blamed Cuba for the incident, but some believe that US embassy Cubathe alleged device may have been deployed by an intelligence service of a third country —possibly Russia— without the knowledge of the Cuban authorities. In October, the White House expelled 15 Cuban diplomats from the US in response to the incident. But the question of what harmed the health of at least 20 employees at the US embassy in Havana remains largely unanswered.

08. Role of spies in German-Swiss economic war revealed. In the wake of the Panama and Paradise leaks, offshore tax havens have faced intensifying worldwide calls for the introduction of transparency and accountability safeguards. Predictably, they are resisting. In April of 2017, German authorities announced the arrest of an employee of the Swiss Federal Intelligence Service (NDB) in Frankfurt. It appears that the Swiss man, identified only as Daniel M., was monitoring the activities of German tax-fraud investigators who have been trying for years to prevent German citizens from having secret bank accounts abroad. It is believed that he was arrested while monitoring German efforts to approach potential whistleblowers working in the Swiss banking sector. A few months after Daniel M.’s arrest, Germany announced an unprecedented investigation into three more officers of the NDB, on suspicion that they spied on German tax investigators who were probing the activities of Swiss banks.

This is part one in a three-part series. Part two is available here. Part three is available here.

Authors: Joseph Fitsanakis  and Ian Allen | Date: 01 January 2018 | Permalink

Year in review: The 10 biggest spy-related stories of 2016, part II

End of Year ReviewSince 2008, when we launched intelNews, it has been our end-of-the-year tradition to take a look back and highlight what we think were the most important intelligence-related stories of the past 12 months. In anticipation of what 2017 may bring in this highly volatile field, we present you with our selection of the top spy stories of 2016. They are listed below in reverse order of significance. This is part two in a two-part series; you can access part one here.

5. Turkey’s intelligence agency wins the 2016 ‘clueless’ award. It seems everyone predicted the July 15 coup in Turkey, except its spy agency. Unlike countless political analysts in Turkey and abroad, who have been warning about a possible coup as early as October 2015, Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MİT) was caught in the dark. So unprepared was the agency, that it was unable to defend its headquarters in Ankara from an attack on the morning of July 16 by military helicopters. Meanwhile, dozens of Turkish nationals with diplomatic passports have been applying for political asylum in Germany and elsewhere since the coup. How many of those are MİT personnel, one wonders?

4. Panama papers leak shows immense extent of global financial crime. This year saw the unauthorized release of the Panama Papers, 11.5 million leaked documents that represent history’s largest leak. The documents were leaked form the vaults of the secretive Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca, and reveal secret information relating to over 200,000 offshore entities. This website opined at the time that the Panama Papers reveal the enormous extent of tax evasion and money laundering on a worldwide scale, which now directly threatens the very survival of the postwar welfare state. National intelligence agencies must begin to view offshore tax evasion as an existential threat to the security of organized government and need to augment their economic role as part of their overall mission to protect and secure law-abiding citizens.

3. Nuclear power plant computers found to be infected with viruses. In April, the computers of Gundremmingen, a nuclear power plant in southern Germany, were found to be infected with computer viruses that are designed to steal files and provide attackers with remote control of the system. The power plant is located in Germany’s southern district of Günzburg, about 75 miles northwest of the city of Munich. It is owned and operated by RWE AG, Germany’s second-largest electricity producer. RWE AG insisted that the malware did not pose a threat to the nuclear power plant’s computer systems, because the facility is not connected to the Internet. But there was no explanation of how the viruses found their way into the nuclear power plant’s systems in the first place.

2. German intelligence accuses Russia of pretending to be ISIS online. In June, a German intelligence report alleged that the so-called ‘Cyber Caliphate’, the online hacker wing of the Islamic State, is in fact a Russian front, ingeniously conceived to permit Moscow to hack Western targets without retaliation. The Cyber Caliphate first appeared in early 2014, purporting to operate as the online wing of ISIS. Now, however, a German intelligence report claims that the Cyber Caliphate is in fact a project of APT28 (also known as ‘Pawn Storm’), a notorious Russian hacking collective with close ties to Russian intelligence. The findings of the German intelligence report echo previous assessments by French and American authorities.

1. Intelligence features heavily in domestic US politics. Many, including this website, saw last week’s expulsion of 35 Russian diplomats by US President Barack Obama as a move directed “more towoard domestic American politics than foreign policy”. The expulsion aimed to expose Moscow’s alleged campaign of interference in the 2016 US Presidential elections. But another of its goals was to force president-elect Donald Trump, seen widely as a Russo-file, to take sides. Russian President Vladimir Putin responded by saying Moscow “reserves the right” to retaliate, but would not do so at this point. The Russian response was unexpected and highly uncharacteristic, an important reminder of the uncharted waters that US politics –and US-Russian relations– have entered in 2016. Still, it is remarkable to see the president-elect of the US effectively side with the Kremlin and not with his own country’s Intelligence Community. If nothing more, 2017 promises to be exceedingly interesting from an intelligence point of view.

This is part two in a two-part series; you can access part I here.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis and Ian Allen | Date: 30 December 2016 | Permalink

Year in review: The 10 biggest spy-related stories of 2016, part I

End of Year ReviewSince 2008, when we launched intelNews, it has been our end-of-the-year tradition to take a look back and highlight what we think were the most important intelligence-related stories of the past 12 months. In anticipation of what 2017 may bring in this highly volatile field, we present you with our selection of the top spy stories of 2016. They are listed below in reverse order of significance. This is part one in a two-part series; part two is here.

10. Kim Philby videotaped lecture surfaces in Germany. While working as a senior member of British intelligence, Harold Adrian Russell Philby, known as ‘Kim’ to his friends, spied on behalf of the Soviet NKVD and KGB from the early 1930s until 1963, when he secretly defected to the USSR from his home in Lebanon. Philby’s defection shocked Western intelligence and is seen as one of the most dramatic moments of the Cold War. In April of this year, the BBC found a videotaped lecture by Philby in the archives of the BStU, the Federal Commissioner for Stasi Records in Germany. During the one-hour lecture, filmed in 1981, Philby addresses a select audience of operations officers from the Stasi, the Ministry of State Security of the former East Germany. Excerpts were aired publicly for the first time.

9. Britain’s MI6 to increase in size by 40% by 2020. It was revealed in July that, according to satellite images, the headquarters of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, known as SVR, has doubled, and possibly tripled, in size in the past nine years. So it probably shouldn’t come as a surprise that the British government plans to implement a 40 percent increase in personnel numbers for MI6 over the next four years. The agency, which is formally known as the Secret Intelligence Service, currently employs about 2,500 people. But that number will rise to approximately 3,500 by 2020. Experts agree that we are witnessing the most significant growth in the size of state intelligence agencies since the end of the Cold War.

8. Israel’s Mossad has a successful year, allegedly. It has been quite a year for Israel’s primary external intelligence agency, the Mossad. In 2015, the secretive organization got a new director, Yossi Cohen. Since that time, it has emerged that Bassam Mahmoud Baraka, a senior member of the military wing of Hamas, the Palestinian militant group that governs the Gaza Strip, has defected to Israel. Mossad is also believed to be behind the killing of Mohamed Zaouari, a senior aviation engineer who headed Hamas’ unmanned aerial vehicle program. Zaouari was shot dead outside his home in Tunisia earlier this month, by a group of assailants using gun silencers.

7. Information points to previously unknown ISIS spy agency. According to The New York Times, the Islamic State has set up a secretive intelligence agency whose task is to set up sleeper cells abroad and has already sent “hundreds of operatives” to Europe and Asia. The ISIS intelligence agency goes by the name Emni and appears to be a multilevel organization that includes domestic and external operational components. Emni’s external unit is tasked with conducting terrorist operations abroad. These are the responsibility of several lieutenants, who are permitted to recruit the most capable members of ISIS from around the world.

6. South Korea announces most high-profile defection from North since Korean War. An announcement issued by the South Korean government in April said it had given political asylum to a colonel in the Korean People’s Army, who worked for the Reconnaissance General Bureau, a military-intelligence agency that resembles the US Central Intelligence Agency’s Special Activities Division. The unnamed man is the most high profile defector to the South since the end of the Korean War in 1953, according to authorities in Seoul. Meanwhile, Thae Yong-Ho, the second-in-command at the North Korean embassy in the United Kingdom, also defected with his wife and children in August, and was given political asylum in South Korea.

This is part one in a two-part series; part two is here.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis and Ian Allen | Date: 29 December 2016 | Permalink

Year in Review: The 10 Biggest Spy-Related Stories of 2015, part II

End of Year ReviewEver since 2008, when we launched intelNews, we have monitored daily developments in the highly secretive world of intelligence while providing an expert viewpoint removed from sensationalism and conspiratorial undertones. As 2015 is about to conclude, we take a look back at what we think are the ten most important intelligence-related developments of the past 12 months. Regular readers of this blog will surely agree that we witnessed our fair share of significant intelligence-related stories this year. Some of them made mainstream headlines, while others failed inexplicably to attract the attention of the news media. In anticipation of what 2016 may bring, we present you with our selection of stories, which are listed below in reverse order of significance. This is part two in the series; part one was published yesterday.

5. CIA may have pulled officers from Beijing embassy following OPM hack. Up to 21 million individual files were stolen in June 2015, when hackers broke into the computer system of the US Office of Personnel Management. The office, known as OPM, handles applications for security clearances for agencies of the federal government.ch The breach gave the unidentified hackers access to the names and sensitive personal records of millions of Americans who have filed applications for security clearances. In late November it was reported that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) pulled a number of officers from the United States embassy in Chinese capital Beijing, following the massive cyber hacking. The irony is that, according to The Washington Post, the records of CIA employees were not included in the compromised OPM database. The latter contains the background checks of employees in the US State Department, including those stationed at US embassies or consulates around the world. It follows that US diplomatic personnel stationed abroad whose names do not appear on the compromised OPM list “could be CIA officers”, according to the paper.

4. Provisional IRA ‘still broadly in place’, says Northern Ireland police chief.. On July 28, 2005, the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA), which fought British rule in Northern Ireland for decades, announced that was ceasing all paramilitary operations and disbanding as of that day. Three years later, the Independent Monitoring Commission declared that the PIRA’s Army Council, which steered the activities of the militant organization, was “no longer operational or functional”. In the ensuing years, which have seen the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement that restored peace in Northern Ireland, it has been generally assumed that the PIRA had ceased to exist. In August, however, George Hamilton, the head of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, told reporters that “some of the PIRA structure from the 1990s remains broadly in place” in the area. Hamilton was speaking in reference to the murder earlier that month of Kevin McGuigan in east Belfast. McGuigan, a 53-year-old father of nine, was a former member of the PIRA, who had fallen out with the organization. He was gunned down at his home, allegedly in retaliation for the murder last May of Gerard Jock Davison, a former commander of the PIRA, who was also shot dead in the Markets area of Belfast.

3. US Pentagon may have doctored intelligence reports on the Islamic State. Many Middle East observers, including this website, have made notably dire projections about the continuing reinforcement and territorial expansion of the Islamic State. In August, a leaked US intelligence report published by the Associated Press said the Islamic State’s strength had remained stable throughout 2014 and 2015, despite a US bombing campaign. However, earlier assessments by the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), which were communicated to senior US policymakers, including President Barack Obama, were far more optimistic about America’s ability to defeat the militant group. Why the discrepancy? According to The Washington Post, which published the story in late August, officials with the US Central Command (CENTCOM), the Pentagon body that directs and coordinates American military operations in Egypt, the Middle East and Central Asia, had systematically doctored the conclusions of intelligence reports about the Islamic State before passing them on to American leaders. It appears that the evidence pointing to deliberate manipulation of intelligence assessments was convincing enough to prompt the Pentagon’s Office of the Inspector General to launch an official probe into the matter.

2. China and Taiwan swap jailed spies in historic first. Few ongoing intelligence conflicts are as fierce as the one that has been taking place between China and Taiwan since 1949, when the two countries emerged following a bitter civil conflict between communist and nationalist forces. Observers were therefore surprised when, two weeks ahead of a historic November 7 meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou, the two countries announced a spy swap. The exchange, which took place in secret in late October, was the first of its kind in the history of the two bitter rivals. Taipei released Li Zhihao, a mysterious Chinese intelligence officer known in spy circles as “the man in black”, who had been arrested in 1999 and was serving a life sentence. In return, Beijing freed Chu Kung-hsun and Hsu Chang-kuo, two colonels in Taiwan’s Military Information Bureau, who were arrested in mainland China’s nearly a decade ago. It is believed that they were the highest-ranked Taiwanese spies imprisoned in China. Their release, therefore, marks an unprecedented development in Chinese-Taiwanese relations.

1. Russia, Iraq, Iran, Syria, now officially sharing intelligence in war against ISIS. The increased involvement of major powers in Syria has been arguably the greatest intelligence-related development of 2015. The United States, Russia, Iran, Turkey, Israel, Germany, France, and the United Kingdom, are only some of the state and non-state actors that are now actively engaged on the ground in Syria, both with armies and with intelligence personnel. A significant related development is the growing relationship between the intelligence apparatus of US ally Iraq and a number of countries with which Washington has an adversarial relationship. Intelligence-sharing had been practiced for a while between Russia, Syria and Iran. But in September of this year, Iraq entered the intelligence alliance for the first time. According to the Baghdad-based Iraqi Joint Forces Command, the agreement entails the establishment of a new intelligence-sharing center in the Iraqi capital. It is staffed with intelligence analysts from all four participating countries, who pass on shared information to their respective countries’ militaries. In October, The Washington Times reported that Iraq had been fully integrated into the Russian-led intelligence-sharing alliance, and that the Iraqi government was already using Russian-supplied intelligence in its war against the Islamic State, according to officials in Baghdad.

Authors: Joseph Fitsanakis and Ian Allen | Date: 31 December 2015 | Permalink

Year in Review: The 10 Biggest Spy-Related Stories of 2015, part I

End of Year ReviewEver since 2008, when we launched intelNews, we have monitored daily developments in the highly secretive world of intelligence while providing an expert viewpoint removed from sensationalism and conspiratorial undertones. As 2015 is about to conclude, we take a look back at what we think are the ten most important intelligence-related developments of the past 12 months. Regular readers of this blog will surely agree that we witnessed our fair share of significant intelligence-related stories this year. Some of them made mainstream headlines, while others failed inexplicably to attract the attention of the news media. In anticipation of what 2016 may bring, we present you with our selection of stories, which are listed below in reverse order of significance. This is part one in the series; part two is available here.

10. Is the United States military sharing intelligence with Syria? Officially, the US government is opposed to the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Washington has repeatedly stated that peace in Syria can only be achieved if the Assad family abandons power. But could it be that the common goal of combatting the Islamic State and al-Qaeda-linked groups is prompting a behind-the-scenes collaboration between the two countries? In a report published recently in The London Review of Books, veteran American investigative journalist Seymour Hersh claimed that America’s military leadership had secretly shared intelligence with Damascus in an effort to aid al-Assad’s efforts to defeat Islamist groups in Syria. What is more, Hersh alleged that the White House, including US President Barack Obama, had not authorized the intelligence sharing and was not aware of the secret arrangement. If Hersh’s sources are correct, this development would indicate a growing gap between the White House and the Pentagon over America’s position toward the Syrian Civil War.

9. After much speculation, the Mossad gets a new director. For years, intelligence observers have monitored the growing rift between Israel’s primary intelligence agency, the Mossad, and the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In sharp contrast to the Likud party chairman, the Mossad has consistently argued that Iran voluntarily halted its nuclear program before 2012, and that establishing peace with the Palestinians is far more critical for Israel’s security than halting Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Moreover, senior former Mossad officials have joined calls urging Netanyahu to stop criticizing Washington’s Middle East policy and work together with the White House. In early December, the Israeli Prime Minister announced in a hastily announced press conference in Jerusalem that Yossi Cohen, a 30-year Mossad career officer, would lead the agency. Cohen left the Mossad in 2013 to chair Israel’s National Security Council and advise the prime minister, with whom he is believed to have a very close personal relationship. Does his new appointment mean that the Mossad will adopt a more pro-Likud stance on Israel’s foreign policy? Given the urgent regional pressures that Israel faces, it should not be long before we begin to find out.

8. The CIA was running a double spy inside German intelligence. In 2015, the relationship between the US and Germany continued to be negatively affected by the revelation two years ago that the National Security Agency had bugged the personal cell phone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel. However, American intelligence agencies appear to have also targeted German government secrets using human assets. In July of 2014, Germany //expelled// the Central Intelligence Agency station chief in Berlin, following the arrest of Marcus R., a 31-year-old, low-level clerk at the Bundesnachrichtendienst, or BND, Germany’s external intelligence agency. More details about the double spy emerged at his trial this year. The court was told that the spy may have given his American handlers information on the real identities, as well as operational aliases, of nearly 3,500 German intelligence operatives. German government prosecutors alleged that Marcus R. spied for the CIA for approximately two years, during which he supplied the American spy agency with around 200 classified German government documents in exchange for around €25,000 —approximately $30,000.

7. Who killed Alberto Nisman? In January of this year, Argentine state prosecutor Alberto Nisman accused the President of Argentina, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, and senior members of her cabinet, of having deliberately obstructed a terrorism investigation. It concerned the bombings of the Israeli embassy and a Jewish cultural center in Buenos Aires in the mid-1990s, which killed nearly 100 people. For years, Israeli authorities have accused Iran of perpetrating the attacks. But Nisman claimed that senior Argentine politicians colluded with the government of Iran to obstruct the investigation into the attacks, in exchange for lucrative commercial deals with Tehran, involving oil and arms exports. Then, on January 19, just hours before he was due to give Congressional testimony on the subject, Nisman was found dead in the bathroom of his apartment, which had been locked from the inside. In response, President Kirchner accused the Secretaría de Inteligencia del Estado (SIDE) of feeding Nisman fabricated information implicating her and her government minsters in a fictional collusion with the Islamic Republic, and then killing him in order to destabilize her rule. She has since dissolved SIDE and charged its leadership with involvement in Nisman’s killing.

6. NSA allegedly spied on every major French company. In June of this year, French President Francois Hollande convened an emergency meeting of the Conseil de la Défense, the country’s highest national security forum, to discuss revelations that the United States spied on three French heads of state, including himself. Documents leaked by American defector Edward Snowden appeared to implicate the US National Security Agency (NSA) in spying on President Hollande, as well as on Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy, who ruled France from 1995 to 2012. Later that same month, however, further reports published by WikiLeaks suggested that the NSA collected information on export contracts by French companies and sought inside information on France’s position on international trade negotiations. According to the documents, the NSA target list included every major French company, including car makers Peugeot and Renault, banking conglomerate BNP Paribas, as well as Credit Agricole, one of Europe’s leading agricultural credit unions. It is one thing to collect political or military information on a foreign country; it is quite another to spy for financial reasons, as the US itself has argued before. But if the WikiLeaks documents are factual, it would mean that even Washington fails to refrain from economic espionage.

Authors: Joseph Fitsanakis and Ian Allen | Date: 30 December 2015 | Permalink